William D. Carl

The July Editor's Pick Writer is William D. Carl

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by William D. Carl

On the day the doctor told me I was going to die, the rain was falling in torrents in Papua New Guinea, and floods of water poured from the Star Mountains and on to the lowland country. I wondered if anything would be left of the farmers’ crops after the storms, or if they would be starving for yet another year, dependent upon foreign aid and the Catholic Mission where I worked

“It’s definitely cancer?” I asked, buttoning my shirt.

Dr. Sepik nodded. “Your x-rays show three tumors. Any one of them would be enough to kill you within six months time. I’m sorry, Father.”

“What are my options?” I fastened my collar, centering the white rectangle that denoted my priesthood.

“I want you admitted to the hospital. I’ll perform the surgery tomorrow.”

“If it’s so hopeless, why even attempt an operation? Perhaps it’s my time to go.”

Dr. Sepik leaned towards me, narrowing his brown eyes. His wide face gave him the wizened appearance of a gnome. The ritualistic tattoos on his forehead and cheekbones seemed to mock me. “There are...possibilities that we must explore. Will you trust me in this?”

I felt as though the air had been knocked from what remained of my scarred lungs. The sheer naiveté of this man, the folly of surgery...it amused and frightened me simultaneously. “What’s the worst that could happen?”

Sepik nodded as though I had agreed with him. “We could open you up and find more than we thought. Or we could discover a miracle. The thing is, at this point, we just don’t know. Go home and pack some things for the next few days. I want to see you back here no later than seven o’clock tomorrow morning, and don’t eat anything in the meantime.” 

I grunted and thought about my life. In the six years I’d been a missionary in Papua New Guinea, I had watched people die of terrible, unknown diseases. I had seen the cicatrices on the skin of the refugees. Their eyes reflected the keloids on their souls from years of struggle and abuse. Their bloated bellies belied their hunger.

In my futility, I had begun to feel a space widening within myself, a hole where my doctrine used to rest. I suppose the cancer had discovered that exhausted crater and had taken root there.

As I walked back to my room above the school, several pairs of eyes watched me from the streets. A small child raised his hand in greeting, and I wondered if this was one of my pupils. There had been a time when I knew all their names, their families, their circumstances, but the enormity of their problems overwhelmed me and left me feeling impotent.

The people of this area, the Sandaun Province, had been living in hardship since the Japanese overtook their land in 1942. In 1984, seven years ago, their valleys were swarmed with Irian Jayan refugees, crossing the mountain range to get away from the brutality of the Indonesian soldiers. Sandaun was still littered with camps where starving families farmed or begged for a living, snatching even more food from the mouths of the natives.

This year, the long rainy season refused to abet, and the inhabitants died of various sicknesses by the handfuls. Struggling against the elements and an extrinsic enemy, they had come to me; turned to the Roman Catholic Church. 

Well, they had flocked to my church, Mary the Blessed Virgin Hospital, and the small school I presided over. I couldn’t claim I had much to do with this. These people simply needed a place out of the rain, a healthy meal, a safe haven for their children. At least I could claim that.

As I packed a bag, I wondered how much longer I could remain in Sandaun. The Sisyphean ordeal of attempting to help anyone had finally caused my faith to deflate, and I struggled to find any one thing I had done to actually help these people. Once, I had been a bundle of energy and determination. Now, I was full of regret and cancer, a ghost of my former self.

Sandaun, in the native language, means ‘sundown.’ The entire province always seemed to be in the shadow of something, on the edge of some new disaster. Night was always reaching for the people here.


The sun shined brightly as I zipped my travel bag and made my way to the cement block structure that functioned as the local hospital. Although the country was wracked with poverty, the hospital was first rate, clean and orderly, much larger than I had suspected. 

After check-in, I was wheeled to my room on the third floor and left alone. The hospital was very quiet, and I wondered if there were any patients other than myself. I heard a woman crying out in a cracked, aged voice, “Help me. Oh, someone help me.” The halls would grow calm for a few minutes, then the pleading would begin again, distant, the sound echoing off the cinder blocks. 

I had packed a book, and I attempted to read, but I kept thinking about the mutated cells that were swarming inside my body. I was surprised that I could still find it within myself to be afraid.

Just before I fell asleep, I could hear whispery voices down the hall. The old woman was still crying out for someone to help her, but her words withered in the air, and these new whispers emerged from her direction. I peered from my dim room at the bright rectangle of light from the hallway. Nobody walked by the door, but I kept my eyes focused on the wall opposite my room, painted a repulsive olive green. 

Suddenly, the whispers ceased, the old woman mumbled, “Oh. Oh!” as if in surprise. Her voice was clearer. I drifted into sleep as I heard the squeak of a bed being pushed away from my room, mingled with the old woman’s astonished, staccato gasps.

After an hour, a nurse prepared me for surgery, and I was wheeled into a sterile room. I listened for the old woman, but she had stopped her incessant entreaties. My wheezing was the only sound in the near-silent hospital.

I tried to pray while Dr. Sepik and the two nurses scurried around me, making ready with their surgical tools. Closing my eyes, I told God that if He could bring me through the operation safely, I would remain in Papua New Guinea for at least another year, in spite of my deficient belief in what I was accomplishing. 

I also prayed that if He saw fit, He should take me now, allowing me to avoid any severe pain. I prayed that I wouldn’t turn into some frail, bellowing creature, like the woman I’d overheard the previous night.

“Are you ready, Father?” Dr. Sepik asked.

“Will it be terrible?”

“Not nearly as much as you fear,” he said. “Now, lay back and relax. Count backwards from one hundred.”

The nurse turned the valve on my IV drip, and I said, “One hundred...ninety-nine...ninety...”

The darkness overtook me, transporting me to some safe place. It surrounded me, a cocoon of warmth and Stygian silkiness.

Although the drug had ferried me someplace else, I could still vaguely hear the words of Sepik as he worked over me. He spoke in Tok Pisin, and I could not understand him. A nurse answered in the same local dialect. 

A low voice moaned, inhaled with lungs full of phlegm and foreign matter. Sepik spoke again, sharply this time. The moaning increased.

I opened my eyes, still lying on the operating table. Looking down, I saw my opened chest, the blood and white of bone sending me into a panic, and I whipped my head to the side to avoid the gory sight.

“He’s waking up,” said the nurse.

“Damn! Increase the anesthetic.”

A movement from the corner of my eye as the nurse rushed to my IV drip. The brightness grew dull again, then faded into blackness…but not before I saw that there was another bed positioned next to mine in the surgery. 

There was a body lying on the other bed, huge in size, covered by a white sheet. Three fingers were all that I could see, all that was not hidden. They had long, yellow fingernails, and the joints were huge with arthritis, mangled by the disease into something barely human. Lesions covered the skin, and black tumors erupted from the dermas in patches, like mushrooms.

The moans were coming from beneath the sheet, and I thought I saw one of the fingers twitch as I fell backwards into a deeper sleep. In my pharmaceutical nocturne, I began to breathe again. 

When I awoke from my drug-induced state, I discovered Dr. Sepik standing over me, reading my chart. As soon as I shifted in bed, the pain raced through my body. I winced and hissed through my teeth.

“Take it easy,” the doctor said.

“I saw something,” I said. “I woke up during the operation. Who was that other man in the room?”

“What other man?”

“The one beside me, in the other bed. The man with the terrible arthritis.”

Sepik smiled, but his uneasiness contradicted the expression. “Why, Father, you didn’t wake up.  I was there the whole time. It must have been the anesthesia. Sometimes, it plays little pranks on the mind.”

“I swear I saw something.”

“I assure you nothing unforeseen happened this morning. And I have really good news for you. The cancer is gone, but we’ll take some x-rays tomorrow to be certain.  Now, I need you to relax. I’ve ordered morphine for your pain, so just lay back and recover.”

I spent the day in a haze, slurring my words and watching shadows creep across the room. No cancer? Everyone had been so sure it was there, even me.

Eventually, it was dark, and I concentrated on the doorway, at the light from the hall. Despite the medication, I found it difficult to sleep, and the three feet of the hallway that I could see begged for my attention.

This night was quiet. Nobody hollered for help down the hallway. No woman shouted in surprise.  I began to drift in and out of sleep, carried back and forth by the morphine.

At some time in the night, I heard a screeching noise, waking me up. It grew louder, coming closer. 

I stared at the bit of hallway and I could see fluorescent lights blazing. A man wearing scrubs and a mask pushed a patient on a bed past my room. I had trouble adjusting my eyes to the unanticipated sight. 

As they passed my room, I glimpsed the desperate nature of the patient, the way the body was twisted, the skin malformed with tumors and rashes. The person had no hair, seemed sexless, but I believe it was a man. 

His shirtless chest was immense, as though filled to the breaking point with some strange stuffing. His arms sagged, trailing yellow fingernails and crooked, bone-stretching angles. The patient turned his head in my direction, and his eyes were snow-white with cataracts, yet he appeared to stare into my room, to look right at me. The gruesome patient moaned as he was swept past, breathing heavily. 

Then he was gone, and I listened to the squeaking wheel until it was enclosed within the elevator. In another moment, I was assaulted by a stench of festering wounds and sickness, of infection and rot. I knew this smell. It was the very perfume of death, of poverty and genocide. The streets of Sandaun reeked of the stuff.

Fumbling for my call button, I pressed it firmly until a nurse appeared. Taking one look at my terrified visage, she upped my dosage of morphine. As I drifted off into bliss, I tried to explain what I had seen, tried to ask her about the horribly deformed patient. But I was quiet as the drug welcomed me, and I gave in to its seduction.

The next day, I was surprised at how strong I felt. The nurses helped me walk to the bathroom, and I even managed to stroll a bit down the hallway. My breathing was easy, my lungs free of obstructions.  I read my book for most of the day, occasionally turning on the television.

On one of his visits, Dr. Sepik said, “You’re looking very well, Father. You’ll be able to leave within a week.”

“Really? I thought it would be longer.”

“For what we did to you, I suspect you’ll be teaching at the school next Monday. How is your breathing?”

“Miraculous,” I said. “As though there were nothing at all inside of my lungs.”

“That’s because there isn’t. We took it away from you.”

It seemed an odd choice of words: took it away from you. You remove a cancer, you cut it out, and you annihilate it with x-rays. You don’t ‘take it away.’ The phrase implied that there was a destination for the cancer.

I spent the next few days recovering, eating more and more, taking leisurely walks down the hallways. Remembering my promises to God, I experienced a resurgence of my initial exuberance upon my arrival in this country.  I would be able to accomplish something here.  I would be able to help the impoverished people and, somehow, validate my years of work on the island.

I was healing faster than I’d assumed, the incisions glowing red, like tight-lipped smiles across my chest. Although they were fresh, the wounds barely ached after three days, and I was walking as though nothing had occurred, generating little more than a twinge now and then. 

Sepik seemed satisfied with my progress, and he told me I could return to my room over the school the next morning. “As long as you have someone who will help you,” he said.  “I don’t want to hear about you walking up and down those stairs.”

“It’s not a problem. The maid will stay with me.”

“I’m glad to hear it. I’ll take one last look at those wounds tomorrow. After that, you have my permission to check out.”

I was restless that last evening in the hospital, anxious to sleep in my own bed again. I found myself averting my gaze to the lighted area in the hallway, the small portion I could see from where I lay, an empty diorama. Other than the sound of insects outside my open window, the place was silent. It should have been conducive to sleep, but it had the opposite effect on me. 

When I heard the squeaky wheel down the hallway, it sliced through the quiet like a scalpel. Even the crickets sensed the intrusion of this noise, and they hushed their lullaby. I hadn’t thought of the sound, nor of the glimpse I’d had of the monstrous thing for several days, concentrating, instead on the healing process. 

With the return of the squeaking wheel, the memory of that pitiful creature rushed over me, igniting my curiosity. An orderly pushed the cart past my room, and I sensed the sickness of the patient rather than witnessing it. I choked, feeling as though the room was suffused with disease, as though the very air was contaminated.

What was this thing? Was it actually human? I needed some answers, or I would be haunted by these riddles when I returned home.

Hopping from my bed, I hurried to the door and watched as the orderly pushed the strange patient into a room at the end of the hall. In a moment, the orderly walked back into the hallway, alone, allowing the door to swing shut behind him. 

I waited until he was out of sight, then I crept down the corridor. Feeling like a child committing some clandestine raid on a cookie jar, I opened the door and stepped into the darkened room.


I swore as the stench hit my nostrils, sickness and despair and vomit and decay. Breathing through my mouth was no better, as I imagined I could taste the gangrenous molecules in the air. 

I heard the heavy breathing of the patient, deep wheezes inundated with hard phlegm. The man on the bed coughed, dislodging something wet. He moaned after a second coughing spell, and the sound of it seemed so familiar to me.

I saw only see a vague shape, outlined in blue moonlight from the window. It was definitely masculine, reclined with his head tilted towards the ceiling. His silhouette revealed growths and pustules on his face, tumors sprouting from his forehead and nose. His teeth seemed exceedingly white, and they almost glowed while he breathed heavily through his mouth. I could discern no hair, but even in the dark, I could tell his joints were ravaged by some terrible bone disease.

I was terrified to see him in the light, afraid to expose myself to whatever horrors the patient might reveal beyond what I had seen. Still, I had to know. With a trembling hand, I flipped on the light switch.

In the seven years I had been a missionary in Papua New Guinea, I had seen some terrible things. I had witnessed the execution at gunpoint of more than one prisoner. I had watched children’s bellies bloat with hunger, their eyes becoming breeding grounds for flies. I had seen people eating dirt to survive, their faces covered in mud and puke.

I had never seen anything like this.

I screamed, long and loud.

...tissues falling from exposed bone, rotted black...gums dotted with sores...eyes occluded with cataracts…tumors on every part of the man’s body...every inch of skin protruding unnaturally, lesions split like rotten fruit...joints broken and perverted...strings of black saliva and blood trickling from a tongueless mouth...

The patient heard me, turned his blind face toward mine and moaned through oozing lips.  He held out a hand, the fingers swollen like sausages and curved into painful effigies of tree limbs.  When he tried to sit up, some of the skin on his back slid away from the bone, leaving a wet mark on the sheets.

I don’t know how long I screamed until Dr. Sepik arrived and gave me a sedative. I spent the night in a dreamless sleep, mentally distant from the horrors in that room. When I awoke, the doctor was sitting next to my bed, watching over me.

“You weren’t supposed to see him.”

I sat up in bed, asked, “What exactly is he?”

“Are you sure you want to hear this?”

I nodded.  “Yes.”

The doctor sighed, answered me.  “He’s part of a tribe of primitives that live in the caves at the base of the Oenake Range. He possesses unique psychometabolic powers. He has the ability to absorb any sickness from anyone, to hold it within himself. Father. he took your cancer from you. It’s multiplying in his chest as we speak, the tumors growing larger.”

“But, my scars...”

“Oh, we open people up, let him touch them, then sew them back up again. Since he acquired your tumors, I had no need to operate. The stitches and incisions are all for show.”

“My God,” I whispered. “How many people has he healed?”

 “I don’t know...at least a hundred. I use him when I know I have a hopeless case...AIDS, pneumonia, rheumatoid arthritis, cancer. He saved your life.”

“At what cost? He is...awash with disease. Why doesn’t he die?”

“We aren’t sure. All I know is, we keep him strapped to his bed, feed him, and use him when we must.”

“I don’t know that I like that word... ‘use.’ He is not a tool.”

“Oh, but he is!”

“He’s a man.”

“Not any longer,” Sepik said. “He’s a vessel for infection. There is no mind at work in him. I’m afraid he’s quite insane.”

I sputtered, “But, it’s morally wrong. Can’t you see that?”

“Then, I can have him touch you again, have the cancer returned to you. It seems to work that way if he touches you a second time. Trust me, Father, he doesn’t understand what’s happening to him. You’re free of the cancer, and he will continue to incorporate more and more sickness from many more victims. Don’t you see the ramifications? He has saved hundreds of lives. He may yet save hundreds more.”

“Tied to a bed. It’s sickening.”

Sepik stood. “It’s your decision, Father. But, if it were me, I’d enjoy my second chance at life. So few of us ever get one. If you truly feel the need to repossess your cancer, you know where he is.”

After he left the room, I wrestled myself out of bed and walked down the hallway to the sick man’s room. This time, as I looked over his grotesque body, I didn’t feel horror—merely disgust and pity. He turned his face to me, and I stared into his blind eyes.

“God help me,” I said, and he reached out his hand to me. I realized what the gesture meant, the universal plea for succor. His face winced as pain shot through his body, and I found myself wondering if my tumors were the cause of that expression.

He’d saved many people, but at what expense? His own body was consumed by so much sickness that one more wouldn’t hurt. Mine couldn’t make any difference. Could it?

I had been so excited by the future, by all the plans I had dreamed while recuperating. I knew I couldn’t go back to the asthmatic, dying old man that I had been. Being free of the cancer had liberated me in more ways than I could count.


Being careful not to touch him, I pulled a pillow from behind the patient’s head. He fell back with a grunt. Slowly, I brought it over his face, pushing down hard over his mouth and nose.

He didn’t fight back, didn’t flail his arms or try to stop me. He lay beneath my weight, accepting what was coming. It was such a quiet death. After a few minutes, I removed the pillow from his face, and I saw the smile, those bright, white teeth entrenched in rotting gums.

“Thank you,” I said to the corpse. “And, you’re welcome.”

Returning to my room, I dressed and left the hospital. I haven’t been sick since that day, not even a common cold.

I try to do good for the villagers that swarm my church, hands held out for food or clothing. I sometimes feel that my efforts are worthwhile. The shadow of Sundown has a terminus, even if it isn’t a bright, happy morning. At least, I sometimes feel as though I can see the light ahead. Dawn may be within reach.

Dr. Sepik never spoke to me again, and he returned to India a few months after I murdered the patient down the hall. He resents what I stole from him. Sometimes, I find myself angry over this. Most of the time, I can appreciate the truth.

I have helped at least one person during my stay in Sandaun.

And nobody can take that away from me.

William D Carl lives in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, and is a horror/thriller novelist. His first book, BESTIAL (Book One in the Werewolf Apocalypse Saga) is now available from Simon and Schuster. Book 2, PRIMEVAL, has also been released. Look for his Euro-horror homage THE SCHOOL THAT SCREAMED from Crossroad e-books as well as his terrifying OUT OF THE WOODS from Post Mortem Press. His new series, GONE NOIR, has just commenced with the first book, THREE DAYS GONE, which follows the adventures of a private detective who gets all the weirdest cases in Cincinnati, Ohio. He has published short fiction in over twenty five anthologies and magazines. He lives with his partner of 26 years and one rather large hound dog.